By Keith Vinicombe
Whether you are a good birder or a bad one, finding a rarity always involves a large dollop of good luck, and this was brought home to me last week on our annual October visit to Scilly.
The first few days had been unseasonably hot and sunny, with most birders wandering around the islands in their shirt sleeves. On Monday 3 October, we set off for Tresco with no coats or waterproofs, confident that the heat wave would continue. However, half way across to the island, the mist rolled in, the wind got up and the temperature plummeted. By the time we disembarked at New Grimsby, it was, well, horrible.
Nevertheless, spirits soon rose with the discovery of a new Lesser Yellowlegs and three Pec Sands on the Great Pool but, as we continued to shiver, all I could think about was getting back to St Mary’s for a nice hot cup of tea. In one of the hides, I bumped into Robin Mawer, who told me that a stint had been seen briefly earlier in the morning. Apparently, it was thought probably a Little Stint.
Having given the yellowlegs a good grilling, we decided to yomp across the island to catch the early boat back to St Mary’s. However, half way to the quay at Carn Near, somebody told us that the Little Stint was showing at the eastern end of the Great Pool. I soon found it and set up my telescope. The trouble was, it was right on the opposite side of the pool, somewhere in the region of 200 m away. As I stared at it through the scope, it struck me that there was something not quite right about it. It showed noticeable pale bases to the third row of scapulars, rather like a worn juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, and I couldn’t see a mantle V. However, its overall plumage tone was quite a rich, almost chestnutty-brown, quite wrong for a Semi-p.
The only other possible alternative was Least Sandpiper, but that fitted even less. Least Sand has a Pectoral Sandpiper-like breast band and yellowy or greeny legs. This bird had fairly distinct patches on the sides of the breast and obviously black legs. In addition, it eventually turned to reveal a white V, albeit a rather weak one towards to the rear of the mantle.
This is what it looked like (screw up your eyes and imagine it at 200 m range):
Note the patch on the sides of the breast and the black legs.
Moving on a bit further, I found a small group of birders – including some very experienced Scilly locals - also grilling it. In a quick exchange of views, we all agreed that it had to be a Little Stint, and so off I rushed to catch the boat.
The following morning, there was a mega-alert on the pager: Least Sandpiper on the south beach on Tresco. Off we sped back across the water, but this time suitably kitted out for the inclement weather. By the time we got there, the bird had relocated to the eastern end of the Great Pool, to the exact spot where we had seen yesterday’s Little Stint. A quick look through the scope and my heart sank – it was the same bird. This time, though, we had the sense to walk down the southern side of the pool and watch it at ranges down to about 20 m, where it was clear to see that it was indeed a Least Sand.
At close range, it had a very finely streaked breast band – indeed, just like a Pec Sand – but what surprised me was that the background colour to the breast was pure white. This meant that, at any distance, the central part of the band was more or less invisible. The other thing was that its legs were heavily caked in sticky black mud. At times, though, chunks fell off to reveal the true colour below: olive green.
This is what it looked like up close:
Least Sandpipers really are reminiscent of a ‘mini Pec’. Note the narrow pale eye-ring, the fairly solidly streaked crown with no ‘split supercilium’, the complete breast band, the lack of obvious mantle Vs, the greeny legs and also the tiny primary projection beyond the tertials – juvenile Little Stint has a long projection of two or three primaries (although often shorter on adults).
Although I can justify dismissing it as a Little Stint, I can’t forgive myself for failing to check it out properly. If only I’d walked down the other side of the pool and given it a proper look! But I was cold, fed up, hungry, and rushing for the boat. That’s where the luck comes in – or, rather, the lack of it! But the episode also served as a reminder to follow your instincts, and always make certain before dismissing an even slightly odd looking bird.
PS Congratulations to my old mate Dick Filby though for sussing it out the following morning … don’t you just hate him!